development learning political power & power relations reflection

ecobarrios bogotá, a reflection

Meeting in San Cristóbal, 25 Jan 2014 @ 9 am.

We arrive. There is a group of people clearing the bushes and branches surrounding a particular house. Apparently, a group of thieves/drug users had taken up in the house and this is a way to increase visibility for community scrutiny and improved safety. I am impressed at the group effort evident. Young and old with machetes in hand.

The meeting turned out to be with more than just FOPAE, the disaster management/mitigation department. It also included the department in charge of public housing, of social services, etc. There were about 60 people present for the meeting.

As we walk to the meeting hall in Corinto, the one that they convinced the authorities to let remain when the rest of Corinto was demolished and residents resettled, this young man is talking to one of the FOPAE officials about the proceedings of the meeting 8 days before (the one I was supposed to go to but calls to my host fell through). He is talking about how people were very furious with him; that he keeps bringing foreigners into the community, to take photos and then they go off and benefit gaining money for themselves. That none of it benefits the community. That he had told them about this Kenyan girl coming but no-one had benefited from it in the community. Perhaps he too was gaining money? (Just to clarify, I did not take pictures within the community. I took 2 photos of the former Corinto with my phone, of the Ecobarrios plaque and of the forest on the other side. I wasn’t around long enough to take pictures of anything that could be used to solicit money, neither did I plan to. I am, however, aware of this practice).

[aside] During this conversation, while I was to the side listening in (I am unsure if the young man knew that I was the Kenyan in question but it is possible), I had flashbacks of Owino-Uhuru, an informal settlement in Mombasa where I worked on a lead project with a local NGO but was once met with hostility from the village head. I was glad that I had left my bag with camera in the car. I was reminded again of how much this place is like Kenya. And of the niceties and care with which community anything by a non-community member has to be handled. It was odd that I had not been introduced to much of anyone in the community, up till the meeting after which I decided to move out (we had by chance met the president of the junta but that was all). As a woman who’s working on starting up a library in the area said to me on that day I moved,”I don’t know why people here self-sabotage, why they keep things to themselves that could benefit the whole community instead of sharing them for the benefit of all”.
I am inclined to think that my host was enamoured of the fact that I had found him, and ‘read his book’ and come all the way to learn about this project that he ‘hoarded me’ to an extent. This is caution to me- especially in vulnerable communities, where trust is likely to be an issue due to questions of legality, that there are simply different ways of doing things, because history has taught residents to be wary of being used, and abused- and with good reason.

The plaque at the beginning of the Triangulos reads, Ecobarrios, an alternative proposal to the politics of resettlement. I think Ecobarrios as an idea and hope was formulated out of a space of fear. Fear of being forcibly relocated to another part of this very dispersed city; away from this well-located area, away from what has been home for a long time. A fear that was evident when my host, kept insisting, “No me voy! No me voy!” (I won’t go! I won’t go!) And as Corinto shows, resettlement was a real threat. But when the fear is removed what is left of the ghost of Ecobarrios, for what does it have to live?

FOPAE is looking into ways of mitigating risk (both physical and social) in the area and thus enable people to remain in the location. They are doing this hand in hand with other ministries/departments of the city. Apparently, this turn in events, from as the sub-director honestly admitted, “there was no question of mitigating anything before or fixing the road, everyone was to leave and that was that- resettlement doesn’t think of a future,”- this change is because the mayor, Petro, has prioritised resources going to communities and for communities to decide how to handle it and decide collectively. It is more participatory.

There are currently 4 issues on the priority list in San Cristóbal as elaborated on and discussed at the community meeting: to fix the road, where it is blocked by a soil slump so that public transport can get closer to the community and services can be provided. To address the issue of resettlement for those who want to move, and the question of mitigation of risk in the dwellings and eventual legalisation. To construct a new communal space that will offer an alternative to drugs and crime for youth through oficios, talleres, a library (mitigate social risk/vulnerability) as well as be the go-to place in case of an emergency. Beginning the following Saturday there will be weekly classes by FOPAE on risk and practical ways to mitigate it. There will also be monthly communal meetings with these departments to check on the progress of these commitments.

Las politicas de reasentamiento ya son otras, ¿de que sirve los Ecobarrios? Me parece que por ahora en su versión anterior, no tanto.

(The politics and policies of resettlement are already different, is the Ecobarrios idea as relevant then? It seems to me that for the moment not so much)

Perhaps the idea served its time and was useful in giving hope for something different, for rallying the community around this proposal that allowed them a way to fight for the right to stay where they were. To fight for the eventual goal that is a sense of stability and fixity in this place against the constant and real threat of forced relocation. For now, unless the Ecobarrios shifts to the other aspects of the proposal (I am not sure these exist, perhaps this would mean imagining more into the idea) besides the legalisation/pacto de borde, Ecobarrios might die its natural death.

On this Saturday meeting there was a young group of students calling themselves, itinerant teachers. They would like to work with the community in urban agriculture projects, in the empty lots that were Corinto for example, and teach these skills to the community. In this way, the spirit of Ecobarrios may keep on and keep being relevant.

Talk to me